Thursday, August 31, 2006

This Justice Is Swift

I wasn't sure what the quote from People Magazine that was used in the ads for the new Fox series Justice meant: "like CSI at warp speed." Having seen the first episode of the show, I begin to understand. What I don't know is whether or not this sort of speed is a good thing or a permanent aspect of the show, but if ever a series cried out for a two hour pilot episode, I think it was this one just so that we could have a bit more time to understand what was going on.

Wednesday night's episode of Justice started with the body of a woman floating face down in a swimming pool, the water around her turning increasingly red with her blood, and the sound of a 911 emergency call from her frantic sounding husband, Kevin O'Neil. This leads to the credits, but as seems to be the trend with the first episodes of Fox series this year the credits do not lead to the first commercial. Instead, using the show's crime infotainment show American Crime as a framing device, the show vaults us ahead several weeks. We're shown a helicopter shot of a large number of police cars racing down the street and are informed that the police are on their way to arrest Kevin O'Neil for the murder of his wife and making it clearly seem as though he's guilty, particularly since he's hired the law firm of Trott, Nicholson, Tuller & Graves. His lawyers are at O'Neil's house; they know that he was going to be charged with his wife's murder but they believed that he would get the opportunity to surrender himself into custody rather than have the media show of an arrest, but the DA has apparently decided that he needs the publicity. The lawyers decide that they're going to thwart this ambition by sneaking Kevin out of his house and over to the local sheriff's station where he can surrender himself into custody voluntarily. Perception, according to Ron Trott (Victor Garber) is everything. It is a point that he will continually make to his client during the period leading up to the trial. According to Trott, in the weeks before the trial, guilt or innocence is decided based on a 60 second video clip on CNN. Trials used to be about the law, now they're about the law and media, so the way that the client is seen in his every action is carefully scripted.

The problem that I was having with the show is that we're introduced to concepts very quickly that develop results very quickly. No sooner are we told that the firm's forensic testimony expert Alden Tuller (Rebecca Mader) has to get to work finding a forensics expert and work out a scenario for what happened than we see the man finishing up production on a computer reconstruction of events, and getting reamed out by Trott for using big words. Similarly when Luther Graves (Eamonn Walker) is briefing a room full of "worker bees" (they can't all be associates or law clerks or even secretaries) on how they're going to scan all of the material that the prosecution has sent over as discovery evidence - show arriving in many many cartons - and then using the computers to search for key words in order to find out what the DA is hiding from them it is a matter of seconds really before he is holding the smoking gun - a lab report that shows that the murdered woman was having an affair, hidden amongst other extraneous material. This shows that the DA will be claiming the motive for the supposed murder is jealousy rather than to get the victims money which is what the defense team had assumed. Obviously the producers have cut the scene in order to eliminate the "boring" process of actually finding the document, but if nothing else showing a bit more would have given us a better sense of the process for future episodes.

All of this and more happens in the first half hour or thirty five minutes (including commercials) of the episode. The pace slows somewhat in the second half hour as the case goes to trial but there are still things that are extremely annoying. We're introduced to a jury consultant who tells Tom Nicholson (Kerr Smith), the lawyer who will actually be leading the defense in court, to reject a specific juror because he's a divorced Republican and more likely to vote to convict. We're given no sense of how she decides on what makes a good juror for this case. Later she's seen telling a "sample jury" what they have to do - watch the trial on TV and indicate the arguments that are working and the ones that aren't. The trouble is that we're given absolutely no indication of how the sample jury is picked. Are the people off the street or have they been chosen to reflect the actual jury? A couple of minutes of exposition on this point would have been helpful.

All of this makes it seem as if I don't like the show which isn't the case at all. For all of the fast pace so many elements of the principal characters come through with absolute clarity. Victor Garber has an amazing time showing us the arrogance and aloofness of Ron Trott. At one point Kevin O'Neil asks Tom if Trott will be trying the actual case and Tom asks him if he likes Ron. Kevin says no and Tom replies "neither do juries." And yet Trott is a master of what he does, spinning the media as shown by his statement to the press as Kevin is being whisked away from his house to surrender at the sheriff's station or in his interview on the clearly hostile host of American Crime. He's not only seen but the reaction of people is shown through audience meters. His polar opposite is Kerr Smith, whose Tom Nicholson has a loathing of dealing with the media even though he's the "all-American face of not guilty." His personality and abilities come out in alternately charming and persuading the jury. Separately Trott and Nicholson wouldn't be successful but as a team they're perfect partnership. Luther Graves' contribution to the mix is his understanding of the other side as a result of being a former prosecutor. He knows that the DA is grandstanding and knows the tricks that the prosecution is using because he's used them himself. So far at least Eamonn Williams hasn't been given much opportunity to show what he can do with the character. As the female member of the team, Alden Tuller, Rebecca Mader is also playing a secondary character but she does more with it. Alden is observant - she's the one who spots a key omission in the prosecution's demonstration of how the murder occurred - and is able to make the defense's forensic expert, a man with a habit of using Latin terms and big words, into following her lead and keeping the evidence he presents easily comprehensible.

The series is interesting in that it doesn't seem judgmental about it's characters, with the possible exception of the Nancy Grace clone who hosts American Crime and is clearly hostile to the team at TNTG, as she calls them, even as she uses them to get ratings because they (and in particular Ron Trott) are good television. As we saw in several of Dick Wolfe's series, and in particular his foray into a pure court drama Law & Order: Trial By Jury, he has a tendency to regard the police and prosecution as heroes and defense council as mercenary slime who are worse than the criminals they defend because they know that their clients are guilty. Last season's In Justice gave us a team of underfunded defense attorneys trying to protect those who have been wrongly convicted because the power of the state was opposed by poorly chosen or underfunded defense lawyers. Justice makes it clear that its defense attorneys aren't saints - they don't necessarily care or want to know if their client is really guilty. As Trott says at the end of the episode, in another interview with American Crime "If you've got the right lawyer we have the best legal system in the world" the clear implication being that the "right" lawyer is an expensive lawyer and the team behind him. On the other hand the cops and the prosecution on this show are little better. The DA is out for publicity at every turn, but in particular the way he stages the arrest of Kevin O'Neil, while the lawyer who is actually prosecuting the case is a tremendous grandstander who at one point produces a golf club - not the "murder weapon" but one obtained for demonstration purposes - and proceeds to smash it into a law book to show how the victim was murdered. This is during his cross examination of the defense forensic expert, and when the man restates his position that given the injuries it was more likely that the woman slipped getting out of the pool and struck her head twice, the prosecutor dismisses the statement by saying "that's what you were paid to say; you can stop now." But perhaps the most telling was the behaviour of the lead detective on the case. It's initially pointed out that he didn't try to verify any of O'Neil's statements about what he was doing while whatever happened to his wife took place. Worse, what would turn out to be a key piece of evidence - a patio umbrella - simply vanished. Certainly it wasn't included in the prosecution's demonstration video in which the detective participated. Just how important that umbrella was would be shown quite graphically in the court. In a demonstration in court, created because the sample jury "wanted to see blood", a dummy head with a blood pack built in was struck by the detective and showed that the missing umbrella would have collected cast off blood if the crime had been committed in the way the prosecution had said.

In perhaps the show's most important gimmick, after the trial had been completed and Kevin O'Neil had been found Not Guilty, the audience of Justice were shown what actually happened. In it we're shown Kevin's wife getting out of the pool... and slipping, hitting her head, trying to stand but in her disoriented state falling and hitting her head again before collapsing into the water. We, unlike the world of the show, know that Kevin O'Neil was not just Not Guilty but also Innocent of the crime for which he was charged.

On the whole I loved the show except for the minor quibble about the pacing of the pilot episode. There's a reason that CSI isn't presented at "warp speed" and that's so that the audience can get a sense of what's going on. I need a little more information on what a jury consultant does before seeing one tell a lawyer not to select one specific member of the jury. I need to know a bit about how a sample jury is picked in order to know that it is a valid technique for the defense. Before I'm shown a forensics expert creating a computerized reenactment of the wife's death, I'd like to know how he arrived at the specific sequence of events he is reconstructing. It's not necessary every time, just as it isn't necessary to explain how the equipment on CSI works every time, but it's helpful to my understanding of what's going on if it's explained at least once. With that caveat, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the show because of the quality of the acting and the way the actors settled into their characters. It's an involving show that examines the real complexities facing the criminal justice system in the age of cameras in the courtroom, and trials as mass entertainment. I'm impressed that the show hasn't taken the easy route of making one side or the other perfect; the defense attorneys are sharp but mercenary and the prosecution is not above using less than admirable tricks. Despite the problems that I had with the pilot, this show is going on my list of shows to watch this season.

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